Accelerating Change – The Last Ten Years And The Next Ten Years

As I sit here in a coffee shop writing on my laptop, much of what I observe around me would have been here ten years ago. People sitting and chatting, young people doing homework, someone knitting, all with their mochas and lattes and cups of tea. But I also see people typing on their laptops, connected to the internet via wifi, or talking on their smart phones, perhaps planning where to eat dinner using Yelp, getting advice from Siri, or getting travel guidance using Google Maps. They could be catching up on TV shows they missed last week or last year via Netflix or Hulu. Or simply catching up with their friends via Facebook.

In the last ten years we had the following new technologies reach wide market adoption, even if some had been under development for much longer:

  •     Smart phones
  •     Web 2.0 and 3.0
  •     Mobile computing
  •     The ubiquity of HDTV
  •     The rise of 3d TV
  •     Skype
  •     Facebook
  •     GPS
  •     Siri
  •     The app-ification of everything
  •     Netflix
  •     Facetime
  •     Stuxnet
  •     The iPad
  •     Wifi
  •     Wikipedia (started more than 10 years ago, but grew explosively during that time)
  •     The disappearance of cameras – everyone uses their phone now
  •     The Cloud

This is just some of what has changed over the past ten years in technology. Many other technology changes are less obvious, like the fact that most cars now have much more power, from smaller and more fuel efficient engines, than in the past, thanks to advances in digital design and manufacturing. That our laptops are lighter and run for longer on a single charge, due to improvements in battery technology. And that their internal storage, while huge, is also augmented by unlimited storage in the cloud.

But technology advances ever faster, so the magnitude of the changes in the next ten years will dwarf the changes of the last ten years. Over the course of that period, processing power is likely to grow by a factor of 40 or 50. This is less important to your laptop than it is to devices that don’t exist yet, like an implantable super-computer.

Right now an iPhone 4S rivals supercomputers of a decade ago in processing power. In ten years, that amount of processing power will be available in a device only 2% of the size of an iPhone – a good size, perhaps, to be implanted in a human brain, or certainly in a prosthetic arm (or eye).

The storage available in a laptop will be a nearly unimaginable size, but the really interesting place for storage might be on our eyeglasses, connected to a camera that can record every waking moment of our life and store it in the space of the temple of the glasses. What you might do with all that information is a very good question, but it’s always been the case that we’ve managed to use up all the storage we can get. Perhaps there’s a limit to how much we can use, but we’re far from reaching that point, and we certainly won’t reach it in ten years (since after all, we still won’t be at “brain-level” storage capacity then). Or perhaps that storage is in a microrobot that swims in your bloodstream, recording your levels of nutrients and drugs, and detecting the signatures of illnesses and conditions early, constantly monitoring, and reporting back, how you are doing.

What other changes are in store? Well, just as today almost 1/3 of the people of the earth have access to mobile phones, and about 10% have smart phones, in ten years not only will the fraction be bigger, but the mobile phones themselves will be transformed. Even the poorest communities in the world will have access to supercomputer-level processing power, and richer communities will have commensurately more powerful capabilities. And the connectivity to go with it. Imagine the outcome of such a widespread availability of such open communication platforms. Of course, they may not remain open, but even if full openness is limited for some, everyone will have access to more information and knowledge and training and collaboration than has ever been possible. The innovation and transformation that will be driven by making the tools of the 21st century available to half of the poorest people in the world is likely to result in changes that are not only different in scale and scope than we’ve experienced before, but different in kind as well.

So far, I’ve only talked about technologies related to high-tech electronics and digitization. There are three significant areas that will also have significant impacts on our lives over the next decade, even if their major fruits are still farther in the future:

  • Nanotechnology and new materials – already today new advances in production and use of carbon nanotubes and new composite materials are announced nearly every day from the research labs of the world
  • New energy systems and energy efficiency – every day MIT and Rice University and Caltech and all the other research universities around the world announce energy-related discoveries and breakthroughs, from stacking nanotubes to make transparent infrared-sensitive solar cells, to new catalysts for small, affordable fuel cells, to breakthroughs in energy density for all these devices, among others.
  • Biotechnology, genomics, and related fields like proteomics – soon desktop bioreactors, that can make living cells from basic ingredients, will be commonplace in laboratories, and then it’s a small step to a Bill Gates-type creating the new world in his or her bedroom.

These technologies are all in very early days today, but in ten years at least some will have matured into commercial viability, and new changes will be upon us.

I’m looking forward to having these new technologies at our fingertips, and to helping bring some of them to market myself. It’s the brave new world for product people like me, full of promise and exciting challenges, taking discoveries and insights from labs and turning them into products that make a difference in peoples’s lives and potentially in our planet’s survival.

What are you thinking about the future? What technologies excite you? What “miracle” are you looking forward to? I’d love to hear your thoughts and comments on this post and the series about future tech.

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